Does coffee make men impotent? a 17th-century perspective

Although we are regularly reminded of the potential health risks of drinking too much coffee, to my knowledge no-one has yet argued that men ought to cut back on coffee because it makes them impotent. However, that is exactly what one bawdy pamphlet from 1674 claims. Given the catchy title of The Women’s petition against coffee: representing to public consideration the grand Inconveniences accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor, this scurrilous pamphlet claims to be a plea on behalf of the women of England which asks their men to stop drinking coffee, as it makes them unable to perform, thus leaving wives across the country languishing in a state of desperation.

To put this into context, coffee was an increasingly popular drink in 17th century Europe. It was mostly drunk in coffee-houses, where for just a penny, men enjoyed unlimited refills, access to the latest newspapers and a forum for intellectual discussion with other patrons; I wrote about the rise and fall of English coffee-houses in another post. Yet despite their enormous popularity, coffee and coffee-houses were not without their detractors. Serious-minded physicians published diatribes against the drink, and Charles II wanted to shut down coffee-houses as they were a potential hotbed of sedition. It’s no wonder, then, that a lot of satirical literature on the topic was printed. This pamphlet belongs in that category and shouldn’t be read as a serious social criticism, although some writers have mistakenly seen it as such. It probably wasn’t written by a woman at all; in fact, it scorns women by playing on the age-old stereotype of the gossiping woman unable to control her lustful appetites. However, what was calculated to entertain and make a quick profit back in 1674 still makes amusing reading today. Here is an abridged version with modernised spelling:

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“The Humble Petition and Address of several Thousands of Buxom Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want showeth, that ’tis Reckon’d amongst the Glories of  our Native Country, To be A Paradise for Women [due to] the brisk Activity of our men, who in former Ages were justly esteemed the Ablest Performers in Christendom; But to our unspeakable Grief, we find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigour. Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever. There was a glorious Dispensation (’twas surely in the Golden Age) when Lusty Lads of seven or eight hundred years old, Got Sons and Daughters; and we have read, how a Prince of Spain was forced to make a Law, that Men should not Repeat the Grand Kindness to their Wives, above NINE times in a night: But Alas! Alas! Those forward Days are gone.”

“The Occasion of which Insufferable Disaster, after a serious Enquiry, and Discussion of the Point by the Learned of the Faculty, we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunuched our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent and as unfruitful as those Deserts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought. For the continual sipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-point without a Charm. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiff but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears. Nor can all the Art we use revive them from this Lethargy.

“Can any Woman of Sense or Spirit endure with Patience, that when privileged by Legal Ceremonies, she approaches the Nuptial Bed, expecting that a Man with Sprightly Embraces, should Answer the Vigour of her Flames, she on the contrary should only meet A Bedful of Bones, and hug a meagre useless Corpse rendered as sapless as a Kixe, and dryer than a Pumice-Stone, by the perpetual Fumes of Tobacco, and bewitching effects of this most pernicious COFFEE, whereby Nature is Enfeebled, the Off-spring of our Mighty Ancestors Dwindled into a Succession of Apes and Pygmies: and The Age of Man Now Cramp’t into an Inch, that was a Span.

King Charles II in 1675, a year after this pamphlet was published. Although he presumably drank coffee like other fashionable men, no-one could accuse it of making him impotent; during his life he had 8 to 14 mistresses (though just one wife), with whom he fathered 15 children.
King Charles II in 1675, a year after this pamphlet was published. Although he presumably drank coffee like other fashionable men, no-one could accuse it of making him impotent; during his life he had 8 to 14 mistresses (though just one wife), with whom he fathered 15 children.

“We have reason to apprehend and grow Jealous, That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses [coffee-houses] will usurp on our Prerogative of Tattling, and soon learn to excel us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed pre-eminence: For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossiping. Though they frequently have hot Contests about most Important Subjects; as what colour the Red Sea is of; whether the Great Turk be a Lutheran or a Calvinist; who Cain‘s Father in Law was &c. yet they never fight about them with any other save our Weapon, the Tongue.

“Certainly our Countrymens’ palates are become as Fanatical as their Brains; how else is’t possible they should Apostatize from the good old primitive way of Ale-drinking, to run a whoring after such variety of destructive Foreign Liquors, to trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water. Yet (as all Witches have their Charms) so this ugly Turkish Enchantress by certain Invisible Wiles attracts both Rich and Poor.

“Wherefore to the end that our Just Rights may be restored, and all the Ancient Privileges of our Sex preserved inviolable; That our Husbands may give us some other Testimonies of their being Men, besides their Beards: That they no more run the hazard of being Cuckolded by Dildo’s: But returning to the good old strengthening Liquors of our Forefathers; that Natures Exchequer may once again be replenished, and a Race of Lusty Hero’s begot to equal the Glories of our Ancestors. We Humbly Pray that henceforth the Drinking COFFEE may on severe penalties be forbidden to all Persons under the Age of Threescore. In hopes of which Glorious Reformation, your Petitioners shall readily Prostrate themselves, and ever Pray, &c.”

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